It’s any given Wednesday afternoon. I’m possessed by the not-very-unusual drive for something sweet, and decide to swing by a little wagashi shop on the way home from work. The shop owner is behind the counter and in the time I’m there, two other customers show up–regulars, apparently. There’s not much room for more than one person to look around at once, but the only one browsing is me.
The second customer and the shop owner get into a conversation about hosting foreign guests who are friends of their children, or experiences they’ve had abroad and the kindness they’ve received from strangers. “Everyone says Japan is the land of hospitality,” says the shop owner. “But everyone wants to show it to us when we go abroad, too. People are good everywhere.”
“Ah, but those two girls recently… how terrible.”
“How terrible. But it’s so good to get along with people from so many other countries.”
“That’s right! Japan is such good friends the America.”
“We all need to be friends and then there will be no more wars, right?”
I’ve been nodding along this whole time, darting my glance between the two ladies. They then come back to a conversation point that’s been brought up a few times. “All of the foreign people that get sent here are so smart!” she turns to me as if to compliment me, though I’ve done nothing to indicate any level of intellect. “My French and Chinese guests, even if they couldn’t speak Japanese, they could still think of such good ways to communicate! Always such smart people. And you have such a smart figure, too!”
“Oh, uh… thanks?”
“There are some people from Okayama,” adds the shop owner, “that come all the way here with a bunch of foreign students to teach them about wagashi! I was so surprised when I saw them all crowding in here.”
The customer carries on with her business. “Do you have these in dumplings in soy sauce flavor? Oh, good! I’ll take ten. And this namagashi is so pretty. Do you have two in stock?” she points to a sculpted ball of sweet red bean paste covered in shredded fondant-like texture in different colors. It sits among a counter of other decoratively sculpted sweets based on seasonal motifs and labled with artful names.
“Yes! I just had a tea ceremony instructor in here the other day tell me how much liveliness this namagashi brought to the room.”
“I’ll just enjoy this with my husband.”
My little self-introductive conversation with the shop owner goes on after the customer excuses herself. I don’t remember how, but we got the topic of viewing the moon. “Did you know that tea rooms are designed that way?”
“So that you can view the moon? Yes, I love that!”
“Have you been to Fumon-in?”
“Yes, once! I liked that tea room.”
“There didn’t used to be so many places where you could just walk in an order namagashi.”
“Sure, Fumon-in serves them now, but it’s only in the last decade or so that they started doing that. And the history museum serves them, but that’s only since the museum was built recently! And… where else can you just walk in…”
In my head, I’m listing them off. Meimei-an, Gesshouji, Chidori-ya…
“Oh, and Tachibana!”
“I haven’t heard of that one. Where’s that?”
After receiving directions, she goes on. “In Matsue, there really are a lot of people who practice the tea ceremony. A lot more than most places. Do you practice it?”
“Yes, I practice omotesenke.”
“I only started in April, so I can’t perform temae very well yet.” I’m referring to the process of making the tea.
“Omote is all about the temae, so you’re probably fine!” So I’ve heard about omotesenke. So I’ve heard so many times. The shop owner goes on to lament her own lack of skill in preparing tea, or speaking foreign language. All these foreigners showing up and speaking Japanese so well, and she’s hopeless. The foreigners who show up in Matsue are all so smart.
“Maybe, but I can’t make such beautiful wagashi! I’m only good for eating them.”
Half an hour after showing up to what I thought would only be a five minute visit, I stop by the bread shop nearby and take the neighborhood streets to get home, passing by an elementary school. A trio of first and second grade boys have just spotted me, and stop in their tracks right at the corner I need to turn. “Konnichiwa!” they say.
“Konnichiwa,” I respond. I expected them to say ‘Hello’ instead, though this usually comes out more like ‘Hallo’ when the crowds of elementary school students usually say when I pass by.
They’ve blocked my path. “What’s your name?” Here it comes. They go on to ask one question after another. “What country are you from?”
“America. What country are you from?”
“Japan. But I’m from Yonago!” This is a town nearby in Tottori.
“And I’m from Shimane! No, wait… yeah, Shimane.”
After asking them what grades they’re in, they ask me, “what grade are you in? I’ll bet you’re in middle school!” That instantly makes me very pleased with these kids, but unfortunately, I’m not quite that youthful.
“I’ve already graduated from graduate school.”
“EEEEHHHHHHHH!?!” the trio shout in unison. “You’re a shakaijin!”
“Yes, but I’m the one who’s most shocked about that! At some point I suddenly became an adult,” I reply. It’s true. I’m a full fledged member of society. They go on to ask what society I’m a member of (Matsue, at the moment!), and how old I am, meriting just as much shock as finding out I’m not a student. This leads to a myriad of other questions, leading to me opening my wallet to take out a picture of my family to show them. Spying my wallet, they ask if there is money in there. “That’s a secret!” I reply.
“Do you have any American money?”
“They use dollars there, right?”
“That’s right! We use American dollars. Actually… I do have one with me today!” I say and pull out my other wallet I happened to have brought with me. There is one single dollar bill, and they all breathe ‘wow’ as they feel it and comment on how it feels like Japanese money, and ignore my trying to give them a history lesson about the wigged man featured on it. The second-grader guesses correctly that it’s roughly worth 100 yen, and when one of the first-graders asks how much I could sell it for, I resist making a joke asking how much he’s willing to give for it, settling on a simple “100 yen.” They’re disappointed to find out I don’t have any American coins with me.
Eventually they allow me to keep going on my way home, having said, ‘let’s talk as we keep walking’! While walking up the steps to the bridge, one asks, “do you brush your teeth? Yeah, I thought so,” and then moves straight into “look at all the turtles!” before I can ask if he brushes his teeth. Before I can comment that there really are a lot of turtles gathered, he goes on, “my grandma feeds them bread from here. They’re probably waiting for that!” Immediately losing interest in turtles, they ask what’s in my bag from the bread shop.
I’m ashamed to admit it’s a burger–just a little burger with high-quality lean Shimane beef, because my iron levels were feeling low, really! I rarely eat burgers! This may be the first I’ve had since coming to Japan, and I rarely had them in the US to begin with! Don’t believe that stereotype about Americans eating burgers all the time! Really! Ahh, but defending myself in the name of destroying stereotypes would probably be lost on them. Thankfully, they make no such comments about Americans always eating burgers.
“That’s not bread!” they shout, but then think better of it. “Or, well, I guess it is. There’s burgers at the bread shop.”
I’m starting to wonder if these boys are going to follow me all the way home. “Well, I’m crossing the street here, so…”
“So are we!”
“Well, I turn here, so…”
“We’ll go down this street then. Oh, I saw a carp in this stream once. It was a meter long!”
“Really? Well… I’m going up here… to my apartment…”
“You live here?”
“Well, there. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime!”
“Yeah. Let’s meet again,” they say in utmost serious, not the passing niceties of the world of adults.
“Do you know how to say ‘bye-bye’ in English?” Oops. That was English.
“Um… oh! I know! ‘Good bye!'”
“Right! Good bye!”